Dancing With The Stars … Cruiser Style

Our Marquesas Atoll adventure started with a first … setting our anchor by throwing the little diesel into FORWARD.  Normal procedure calls for us to back down on the anchor hard.     Why?  Keep reading.  🙂


We had an amazing sail out to the Marquesas Keys, between Key West and the Dry Tortugas, one of the anchorages on my bucket list.  The anchorage is an open roadstead, only protected from east and northeast winds.  The wind was from the northeast, had been for days…. except for the 5 hours it took us to sail out — then it was from the north (15-20 mph),  creating 1-2 foot wind waves through the anchorage.  There might have been a notation on the charts about current … but how much current can it be?  It’s 50 miles between the Marquesas Atoll and the Dry Tortugas — not exactly a tight squeeze for current to be ripping.


So as we drop the anchor, the current is rolling us sideways to the north waves … and the chain and anchor is behind us somewhere.  We tried reverse but our little putt-putt 30 hp diesel was no match for the current.  So in desperation, David told me to put it in forward.  A minute later our trusty Spade anchor was totally buried in the sand.  All’s well that ends well.

Oh, and there’s also a notation on the chart, something about “Bombing and Strafing Target Area” just to the west of the Marquesas.  F-16’s used us as target practice, flying low and hard just above our mast then pulling up, climbing literally vertically – we could see their afterburners and the noise was intense.  It happened twice, both times so fast there is no photographic evidence, but all I can say is that I’d hate to be an actual bombing target … there’s no indication that these guys are coming until they’re flying up vertical above you, no noise, no nothing.  You think those pilots are grinning from ear to ear about startling the people in the dark hulled sailboat?  🙂

After lunch (we never go ashore before making sure our anchor is holding and in this case, we might have waited a bit longer than usual), we launched the dinghy, which was an adventure in itself with the current still holding us broadside to those pesky north waves.   There were several beaches just begging to be explored and I couldn’t wait to get off the rolly poly platform that was my house!

Winterlude anchored on the horizon in the background.

Winterlude anchored on the horizon in the background.

The beaches were narrow, but the water was clear, the sand was warm and there were barrel sponges everywhere.

Barrel sponges washed up on the beach

Barrel sponges washed up on the beach

Every beach has its own personality, these apparently have lots of barrel sponges blown in after previous storms.  But the beaches also had a BIG surprise!  Abandoned Cuban refugee boats … several of them.


Seeing the abandoned boats was sobering … backpacks, empty water bottles, rusty old 3 and 4 cylinder engines with 5 gallon gas cans suspended above, jackets, shoes.   The boats themselves varied from totally unseaworthy wooden rafts shrouded in blue tarps to rusty steel hulls fraught with holes.


In fact, just after we left the anchorage, we heard a call on the VHF to the US Coast Guard that more Cuban refugees had washed up on the southwest beach of the Marquesas, exactly where we walked and explored the abandoned boats the afternoon before.

Rocks and coral will make for better snorkeling than we've had since we returned to the US.

Rocks and coral will make for better snorkeling than we’ve had since we returned to the US.

After exploring the atoll with our dinghy, we enjoyed a bit of “dinghy snorkeling” — I’m a wuss, the water temperature was 66 degrees and the air temperature a balmy 73, but that’s not warm enough for me to go snorkeling.  So we put on our masks & snorkels and hung with our faces in the water over the side of the dinghy.  David immediately spotted a lionfish, beautiful but invasive killers – they kill all the juvenile fish on a reef.  But we also spotted a brilliantly blue and neon yellow queen angel fish, a nassau grouper, blue tangs, schoolmasters, and a variety of other colorful fishies.

Taking the dinghy inside the atoll, we saw a HUGE sand shark (bigger than the dinghy!) and a nurse shark along with 3 turtles and several rays, including an eagle ray.  The visibility inside wasn’t the best, but it was still interesting.  Did I mention getting stuck in the shallow water – with the bottom like quicksand so we couldn’t just jump out & pull … no, that’s another story…


After all that exploring, it was time for some sunbathing, just enjoying the warm sand and clear water … and the fact that we had it ALL to ourselves, no one else in sight for days.   Until we were strolling the beach and heard “Whump Whump Whump” from nowhere.  Suddenly over the mangrove treeline, a Navy helicopter appears – low and fast.  In light of the unexpected events of the next day, they must have been checking for refugees, but startled us!

Why is it impossible to capture a green flash in a photo?  This one ranks right up there with the best we've seen...

Why is it impossible to capture a green flash in a photo? This one ranks right up there with the best we’ve seen…

After a spectacular green flash and dinner aboard, just after dark, several crabber fishing boats came in to drop anchor around us for the night – they were gone well before sunrise the next morning.

And then the stars came out to play … we’ve been a lot of places where the light intrusion was minimal and the stars were brilliant, but the Marquesas atoll was right up there.  Orion marched across the sky, the blur of the Milky Way was clearly visible and a gazillion other stars and planets – we used my Starfinder app on my IPhone (which we discovered does work outside of cell range!) to ID some of the early planets.    Then the fish began jumping around the transom – first time we’ve ever been anchored in the middle of a fish frenzy, how bizarre.

Here fishie, fishie, fishie....

Here fishie, fishie, fishie….

The sail back was not as memorable as the sail out, most of the way we had to motorsail, but we decided to put the trolling line in the water.  After all, everyone says if you can’t catch a mahi mahi sailing between the Marquesas and the Dry Tortugas, you’re hopeless.  We weren’t quite that far out, but decided to try anyway.  And caught two spanish mackerel and an unidentified somebody.  All of which we released.

So our first visit to the Marquesas Atoll is now a memory.   I’m sure we’ll have more memories to come before this winter season is over!  🙂  Cheers!  Jan






  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    On the star gazer apps, we use an iPad for navigation that has the built in GPS. The star gazer apps still work on that when outside of cell range.

    Fair winds,


  2. I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!

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